Orwell: The Authorized Biography
by Michael Shelden
Harper Collins, 497 pp., $25.00
There have been a number of personal memoirs and at least two biographies of Orwell, and both the course of his life and his peculiar and impressive personality, as seen by his friends, are fairly well known. Certainly his life makes a dramatic story: particularly his service with POUM and the Republican forces in Spain, the nearly mortal wound that he received there, and his escape through France to England from the Communist commissars. There are also his tentative beginnings as a novelist—Burmese Days (1934), Keep the Aspidistras Flying (1936), and Coming Up for Air (1939)—leading to the enormous popular and critical success of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, at the end of his short life.
He had not expected this success, and the biography shows him plodding along through weekly journalism, through reviewing, through organizing BBC talks for India, toward his final status as a classical writer of English prose and a classical political satirist. There is, finally, the pathos of his last illness as the long sought literary success came to him and while his recently adopted son was becoming a new source of happiness. He died at the age of forty-six, and, as with Lawrence dying at forty-five, one must be overawed by the volume of published work produced, in spite of a lifelong disease of the lungs, in a febrile rush of self-expression.
Bernard Crick was commissioned by Orwell’s widow, Sonia Orwell, as his biographer, and, being a professor of political philosophy, he perhaps understated Orwell’s purely literary ambitions and achievements, preferring to dwell on Orwell’s political attitudes. Professor Shelden, an American academic, writes that he intends to correct this balance and repeatedly praises, and I think overpraises, Orwell’s prose. But Shelden’s principal criticism of Crick, and the justification of his own labors, is that Crick buried Orwell under a mound of fact and that his character did not come to life. Crick had himself admitted that he did not wish to explore Orwell’s inner life and character, and that he preferred to concentrate on his public life. Obviously the art of biography is in dispute here. On present evidence I find myself on Professor Crick’s side rather than with Professor Shelden.
Memoirs are one thing and biographies another. Julian Symons, Cyril Connolly, George Woodcock, Anthony Powell, Malcolm Muggeridge, T.J. Fyvel, have all written memoirs of Orwell, and there are others. Over the years I have spoken about Orwell to many people who knew him well. Putting these sources together, I have a rough picture, although I never knew him: rough, in the sense that an Identikit picture is rough, unlike a good photograph, lacking definition and certainty—almost, one may say, abstract and colorless. One does not know a person, even less his inner life, until one has seen his or her face, the look in his eyes, the way he walks and stands, and heard the varying expressions in his voice.
Sometimes, though very …